Jan 21, 2014

Sundance Review: "Camp X-Ray" is an Intense Look at Forbidden Love at Guantanamo Bay

Director Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray is, at its core, a film that wants to understand those that are wrongly accused. In this drama that explores the relationship between soldier Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) and prisoner Ali (Peyman Moaadi) form a strange relationship at Guantanamo Bay that goes against the army’s code of ethics. It is an exploration not only of forbidden love, but also a tale of perception and treatment of those that maybe don’t deserve it.
Towards the beginning of the film, a coda is announced for soldiers not to let prisoners know anything personal about them or risk psychological manipulation. At the center is Ali, whose knowledge of literature cons Amy into sharing more about herself. She is a soldier who wanted to see the world and ended up dealing with violent criminals and machismo coworkers. She longs for attention, though not love, and the only one giving it to her is Ali. It is dangerous and despite what her commanding officer says, she still falls for him.
There are some questions that are left open to the audience. Was Amy psychologically manipulated into a relationship built on lies or truth? It is never made clear whether Ali is an honest man and while never directly addressed, it could impact the end of the film. Despite this ambiguity, the third act is an intense dialogue between the two characters that does excellent work at framing the door’s window to the prison cell to appear like Amy is the one locked up, if just mentally. It is one of many moments in the film in which these two performers give kinetic performances that pushes boundaries.
The film dissects loneliness through the guise of Guantanamo Bay’s prison system. By doing so, it humanizes Ali and depending on your read, makes his sympathetic portrayal into a striking message about the accused. At the core, everyone is human and through discussion things can be resolved. The unfair treatment and lack of familiarity may cause hostility, but it also turns people into monsters. It may be a very subjective approach to terrorists in the broad sense, but for the film’s goal, it succeeds in provocation. Luckily the script is tight and Peyman Moaadi is stellar at delivering a performance that ranges from comical to menacing to tragic. He commands the film while remaining mostly inside a single room.
The film as a whole works largely because Sattler has crafted a script with contemporary references and a strong sense of who the characters are. It is arguable if what either of the characters did was right, but the drama works on a human scale that explores loneliness and being misunderstood from both sides. It is stirring and features two great performances in Kristen Stewart and Moaddi that create a necessary intimacy to make the story work. Camp X-Ray may at times feel ambiguous or subjective, but it also knows where to put the emotional beats. The exploitation of this world is powerful and overall results in a lot of memorable moments that if nothing else, is a really strong character piece.

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